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"hermetic spirituality" lecture by Prof. Dr. Wouter Hanegraaff


As an alumna of the University of Amsterdam, I was invited to virtually attend the opening lecture from Prof. Dr. Wouter Hanegraaff for the new MA program called "Spirituality and Religion." I thought I might provide a bit of a summary of today's lecture, called "Hermetic Spirituality." Prof. Hanegraaff provided a brief introduction by giving a brief outline of Hermes Trismesgistus, the "thrice great Hermes," who was linked to the god Thoth of Egypt, and the god Hermes of Greece (after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt). While followers of Hermes experienced relative freedom of religion under Greek rule, when Romans came into power, they found less support. The academic study of this stream of thought is generally called "Hermetic Philosophy," but Prof. Hanegraaff breaks with this long-standing tradition by introducing the term "Hermetic Spirituality" in that he finds the term 'philosophy' to be misleading when it comes to this particular subject. Why is this? Well, one of the main terms that is used in this study is "nous" - which is translated to mean 'mind' or 'intellect.' But the big problem here is that "nous" does not refer to our idea of rational thinking, so we miss the difference in this context. This human faculty goes beyond rational thought and the 5 senses in that it is a "direct experience" of the divine light and love. So, how to translate "nous"? Hanegraaff suggests that this term refers more to matters of the heart, and therefore "spiritual" might be an alternative. Although it's not perfect, it is an attempt to get closer to the actual meaning of the word.

Another term that is often seen in Hermetic thought is "gnosis." This word is the opposite of ignorance or 'blindness.' In this worldview, being born into a body results in an alternation of consciousness, a dream-like, illusory state that confuses us and diverts us away from the divine light, and leaves us in danger of becoming dominated by lusts and aggression. Contrary to what many think, Hermetists were NOT hostile towards the senses or to this world that is full of light and life. The world was seen as being a temple, and we are all priests that should take care of it. The world was seen as being a type of hermaphrodite being that constantly gives birth, so in this way, sex and procreation are seen as being good, just as long as one does not become addicted to it. This worldview is one of beauty and love, and not of fear and sin. What is not acceptable is the total disrespect of life. And, enlightenment is possible during this lifetime. Plato's 'allegory of the cave' could also apply to this discussion, but in the gnostic view, our task is not to escape the cave, but to return to it and to try to make ourselves into 'channels' that embody beauty, love, and truth. In closing, Prof. Hanegraaff noted that this (academic) study requires "openness, generosity, and curiosity" and that by keeping this in the forefront of our minds, we can 'de-program' ourselves and become more aware of the cultural complexities that the study of Hermetism and the larger currents that make up Western esotericism reveals to us.

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